Fortunately, no matter how frustrating or confusing the Penny Press is on any given week, we’ll always still have the beacon of clarity that is high fashion.
Fortunately, no matter how frustrating or confusing the Penny Press is on any given week, we’ll always still have the beacon of clarity that is high fashion.
The latest issue of Vanity Fair had an amusing little one-page squib that managed to provoke in me an old and often-provoked reaction. The piece, called “Unsung Superheroes,” is written by Scott Jacobson, Mike Sacks, and Ted Travelstead (don’t ask me why – the thing is 300 not particularly taxing words long; I have no idea why it required even one credited stoned author, let alone three credited stoned authors), with an accompanying illustration by the great Zohar Lazar, and it presents readers with a lineup of D-rate superheroes to complement the A-list teams those readers have been seeing in movie theaters for a decade now.
There are characters like “The Bean Counter,” “Pop-Uppity,” “Mud-Slinger,” and, a hero who could have come in handy elsewhere in this issue, “Grammar Girl”:
Swoops in to save the day whenever frightened townsfolk desperately need to know who vs whom, that vs which, and just plain right vs wrong. Her modifiers never dangle and her voice is never passive. She has just the right effect. Or affect. She’ll tell you.
And why, you might ask, would a space-filling trifle such as this provoke any kind of reaction in me? Well, it’s a long story – nearly 25 years long, in fact – and I feel this same reaction whenever I see a D-list team of losers trotted out into the spotlight: I flash back to 1993.
Specifically, to Legion of Super-Heroes #49, written by Tom and Mary Bierbaum and drawn by Stuart Immonen. In that issue, stalwart Legionnaire Tenzil Kem, code-named Matter-Eater Lad (that’s his superpower, for those of you not up on your bits of Legion lore: he can eat anything), is on the planet Tartarus and preparing to face the dictator Evillo with a hastily-recruited band of local D-list superheroes, including Policy Pam, whose superpower is the ability to sell insurance to anybody, at any time, Echo-Chamber Chet, who loudly echoes everything that’s said to him, and my personal favorite, Spaceopoly Lad, who’s superpower is the ability to finish every game of Spaceopoly he starts.
And what reaction does all this provoke in me, you might ask? Not nostalgia, surprisingly – back in 1993, DC Comics still had sense enough to publish new Legion of Super-Heroes comics every month, something they haven’t done now in three long years. So you might be expecting the chain of associations to go something like this: Vanity Fair‘s “Unsung Superheroes” – Legion of Super-Heroes #49 – bring back the Legion!
But no – not only do I think for a second that there’s any chance of such a thing happening, but I’m not sure I’d want it to happen in the current DC continuity. No, my reaction is a far more straightforward capitalist whining: how the sprock can a quarter-century have elapsed without DC Comics dusting off and reprinting the entirety of the Keith Giffen-T&M Bierbaum era of the title, one of the best runs in the team’s entire 50-year history? Why are readers wanting to experience that run forced to grub through the single-issue boxes in the basement of their local Android’s Dungeon? Nice solid deluxe reprint volumes of these issues would sell – and they’d introduce a whole new generation of readers to the glories of one of comicdom’s grandest traditions.
All that from Pop-Uppity! Who can explain it?
I’m always pleased when one of my beloved lad-mags pauses from its barrage of plugs for $50,000 wristwatches and full-page ads for cigarettes in order to talk about books; it’s slightly encouraging to me, that the editors of these magazines sometimes think that in addition to grotesquely expensive status-symbol gimcracks and incipient lung cancer, young men should aspire to feed their largely empty minds with some good writing.
And it’s extra-satisfying when the writing those editors single out actually is good, as was the case in the latest issue of Men’s Journal, which devotes two pages to an interview by Darren Reidy with a mighty fine writer of both fiction and nonfiction, British expat Lawrence Osborne, author of a bunch of really good books, including The Ballad of a Small Player, The Wet and the Dry, and his terrific new book Hunters in the Dark. Lawrence Osborne lives on the outskirts of Bangkok, and his instant summary of the place when Reidy asks him about it aligns perfectly with my own memories of the place:
Well, it’s fucking hot. It’s 95 into the night, so I usually work after dark. It’s cooler, and you have the beautiful sounds of frogs and cicadas. I’m in a very jungly area here – mango trees, wild peacocks. It’s not the bright lights side of Bangkok, although all of that is very close by. So I work until around 2 am, and then I go down into the seething masses and get some street food, beers. Also, it’s very feminine here. At midnight, women outnumber men three to one on the street.
I could listen to Lawrence Osborne natter on about pretty much anything, but Reidy seems to zero in on his best subject right away – drinking – and asks him about drinking in Muslim countries, getting a typically blunt response:
Absolutely, and in all Muslim countries. Go to Bahrain on the weekend, when all the Saudis drive over. It’s like Caligula’s Rome. You can spend a weekend in a five-star hotel and listen to the Arab guys trashing their rooms. It makes Vegas look like a Salvation Army hospital. And then they all have to drive back on a Sunday night. Most of them are shitfaced, and they have to wait until they’re sober. Pakistan is like that as well. There’s absolutely no moderation in the consumption of alcohol.
It’s only with the final question that the interview made me grimace a bit. Reidy follows up that great revelation about hard-drinking Saudis by … well, I’m still not sure where this twist comes from:
Why the hypocrisy?
Clearly alcohol is a symbolic thing, because 40 years ago you could drink anywhere in the Middle East, no big deal. It’s some crisis in a world dominated by seemingly Western values. But why hasn’t that same crisis happened in Japan and Thailand? In the Far East, these cultures have been able to absorb Western influence without any neurotic fallout. They feel a level of security in their own culture, or they’re indifferent. But that’s just my opinion. I’m just someone who likes to drink.
Dominated by Western values? Why hasn’t the same crisis happened in Japan? This was all pretty confusing – it’s as if neither Reidy nor Osborne is even aware of the Iranian Revolution spearheaded by illiterate sociopath Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, in which one maniac and a small cadre of zealots managed to drag a modern-day country back to the 8th century, managed it mainly because the men who found themselves every day in those early weeks within arm’s reach of Khomeini – men who just a month before had been enjoying their weekly New Yorker, their I Love Lucy reruns on TV, and yes, their freedom to drink – didn’t simply kill the vicious old lunatic and hope his glassy-eyed followers then came to their senses. The fact that Saudi businessmen have to travel across state lines in order to enjoy themselves has nothing to do with the “hypocrisy” Reidy mentions, and certainly nothing to do with Osborne’s vague invocation “Western values.” It’s purely because of modernity-rejecting religious fundamentalism.
But you should all still read Hunters in the Dark. No Lawrence Osborne book, in fact, should be missed.
The latest New York Review of Books, in addition to its usual spread of great reviews of books I haven’t read – the standout this time probably being Jacob Weisberg’s “We Are Hopelessly Hooked,” a review of a spate of new books on digital media that was full of great quotes (my two favorite: “We can’t just deal with the emotional toll of brutality on the Web by toughening up. We need a Web that is less corrosive to our humanity” and “Even teenagers who don’t remember a time before social media express nostalgia for life without it,” neither of which is true but both of which are well-put) – had a mini-plethora of that peculiar phenomenon of the reviewing life: pieces about books I, too, have reviewed.
I’ve mentioned these echoes before here on Stevereads; they perennially fascinate me. In 2015 I reviewed a large number of books for a large number of venues, and my pace hasn’t been too shabby in 2016 either. But encountering a review by somebody else of a book I’ve reviewed myself is nevertheless always a strange feeling, a weird cross-current of confidence and doubt. The confidence comes naturally (a little too naturally, some of my Open Letters Monthly colleagues might say) – I bring to every book I read every other book I’ve read, and I’ve midwifed enough books into existence to feel no reverence for them that they don’t earn. And the doubt comes from simple realism: I’ve been lucky enough in my life to know many better readers than myself – better readers, more subtle and sensitive readers. Hell, just in the present moment, look at my OLM colleagues, as strong a collection of readers as can be found at any literary journal in the world. Such reading company teaches the value of perspective.
You encounter another critic reviewing book you yourself have already reviewed, and you just naturally ask, “Did I miss something important? Was more going on there than I knew?” And of course you also quickly assess for tactical differences: does the critic in question have more space than you did? Is he an expert on the one key subject involved? And finally, most uncomfortably, you have to ask yourself: is this just a better review than mine?
I had several such encounters in this issue of the NYRB, although some were, to put it mildly, easier than others. When Tamsin Shaw, for example, reviewed a bunch of books on human psychology and not only included Steven Pinker’s moronic The Better Angels of Our Nature but called it “extremely influential,” I can just instantly give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she’s never actually read the book, in which Pinker tortures enough statistics to come with a straight face to the conclusion that mankind is getting less violent as time goes on. I was first flabbergasted and then enraged by this book (it featured prominently on my Year’s Worst list that year), and I’d be dismayed to think it was having any influence on anything. I’m going to hope Shaw is wrong about that.
Equally easy was the quick mention Elizabeth Drew made of Jonathan Waldman’s Rust: The Longest War in an omnibus review she did of a slew of books on America’s crumbling infrastructure. She calls Waldman’s book “very readable,” and I concur: I liked it and would gladly re-read it this week if my copy hadn’t, you guessed it, disappeared.
It was also enjoyable to watch Eliot Weinberger grapple with two very different translations of the I Ching in his review of the recent translations by David Hinton and John Minford. I reviewed both of those translations and spent chunks of time in each case genuinely trying to understand even the smallest aspect of the venerable masterwork itself. In neither case did I undertake what Weinberger does so effectively here, a fast-paced tour of the work’s history in English-language translation, so this was a case of enjoying somebody else’s take on the books in question – or mostly enjoying it, since Weinberger breaks with his usual form by occasionally throwing up real clunkers. He says that the two translations “couldn’t be more unalike,” which is a distractingly donnish way to say they couldn’t be more different, and when he writes the line, “It is not difficult to recuperate how thrilling the arrival of the I Ching was both to the avant-gardists, who were emphasizing process over product in art, and to the anti-authoritarian counter-culturalists,” you stop listening to his historical points as soon as you hit that erroneous and downright weird use of “recuperate.” Which makes me wonder about the NYRB’s legendary cadre of copy editors.
A purer enjoyment came from reading Neal Ascherson on Their Promised Land, Ian Buruma’s gentle and glowing tribute to his grandparents. Ascherson is a terrific writer, and his opening gambit of drawing parallels between the story of Buruma’s grandparents and the family of Anne Frank never even occurred to me when I was writing my own review, and he moves his discussion very smoothly to the book itself:
It becomes clear in Their Promised Land that when Buruma reflected on Anne and Otto Frank, he was also reflecting on his own family. But the book cunningly takes its time to show readers why this is so. It begins with one of the most splendid and nostalgic descriptions of a traditional English Christmas that I have ever read.
And of course it’s dicer – although not necessarily less enjoyable – when a reviewer goes easy on a book I walloped, as happens in this issue when Joseph Lelyveld reviews Jon Meacham’s Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, a deeply flawed hagiography that Lelyveld calls “affectionate, sometimes gushy.” He writes quite correctly, “Not infrequently [Meacham’s] authorial distance from his subject shrinks to the vanishing point.” Which is a mighty polite way of saying Meacham lies in his book, often and enthusiastically. Lelyveld doesn’t quite accuse him of that, but for me, he makes up for his forbearance with some wonderful insights into the whole Bush clan:
More recently, the promise of yet another Bush, a prospective Bush 45, quickly flashed and then even more quickly dimmed. The latest chip off the old dynasty – George W.’s younger brother Jeb (sometimes spelled Jeb!) – hasn’t been able to keep up with the dark currents churning the party he seeks to calm and lead. There’s a spiral here. The way George W made the progenitor look good, Jeb’s campaign misfortunes have reminded some Republicans that for all his failings in office, George W was a winner.
Also in this issue were a few examples of a slightly different phenomenon, the circumstance where some other reviewer finds a way to wring an entire piece out of a book that left me flat-out uninterested. For instance, Arlene Croce does it superbly in her review of What the Eye Hears, Brian Seibert’s recent history of tap-dancing – but that’s a subject for another ramble!
It’s such a satisfying feeling, to buy the new issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, slide it into the front pocket of my battered leather satchel, and know with complete certainty that I have absolutely subway-proof reading ahead of me. Each issue of Asimov’s costs $5 – and yet for that price you get, every single month, not only industry updates, book reviews, and a column by the great Robert Silverberg, but also a first-rate science fiction anthology (usually around seven stories). And thanks to the editorial team at the magazine, these quality pickings happen month after month.
I’ve never read an issue of Asimov’s while in calm repose here at Hyde Cottage. I keep it in my bag and read it exclusively while out and about the city of Boston, traveling by bus and subway, or waiting in line at the bank or post office. It’s a peripatetic periodical for me, very much in keeping with the spirit of its namesake, who in his heyday was a champion reader-on-the-go and whole lived in the New York public transit system like a genius loci (during that heyday, the most popular photo of him showed him hailing a cab with the flat-footed imperiousness of somebody who grew up in pre-gentrification Brooklyn). The result of all this occasion-prompted use is predictable: by the time I’m ready to buy the new issue, my old issue is battered all to Hell and gone. They’re read with love and gratitude, these issues.
February’s issue had plenty of good stuff in it but two unmistakable highlights. The first was the cover story, “The Charge and the Storm” by An Owomoyela. It’s about a young human woman named Petra living as an administrator on a desolate world in a community composed of both humans and their insectile alien hosts, the Su. Some of the humans in the colony are restless at what they see as their second-class relationship to the Su, and Petra is a natural object of their attention, since although she’s smart and idealistic, she’s also deep in collaboration with the Su.
The story is packed with enough complexity and human drama to fill a novel (indeed, in 2015 I read plenty of sci-fi novels that weren’t nearly as rich as these 28 pages), and it’s paced with occasional quiet moments in which Petra pauses to think:
Here in Third Cluster, there were patterns inlaid in the floor, murals, windows: all the things the human population did to make the colony habitable. There were windows through which you could see the roiling clouds – or the battered landscape, when the clouds lifted enough that the ghostly shapes of rocks and craters could be seen. Sometimes, Petra could see vast shapes moving in the distance, not quite the way the clouds moved, and wonder if they were some echo of the vanished ecosystem the Su had clambered out of.
Sometimes, Petra wondered what the hell the Su had done to this planet.
But my favorite story in this issue is “Exceptional Forces” by Sean McMullen, a lean and superbly chiseled story about an eccentric Russian astronomer who’s at a conference in order to deliver a bombshell of a paper: his findings that Earth faces imminent invasion from the conquerors of the Andromeda galaxy. When he’s invited the hotel room of a beautiful woman, the scientist is certain she’s an assassin hired by the world’s shadowy puppet-masters to prevent him from giving a talk that might alarm the general populace out of its complacency.
At first, the woman denies his accusation. But she quickly sees he’s too smart to fool and so confesses that she is, in fact, an assassin. But something about him fascinates her despite herself, and they soon start forestalling the inevitable by swapping secrets with each other, tit for tat. He tells her about the upcoming intergalactic invasion, and she tells him she routinely has sex with her victims before killing them. As their tense banter continues, McMullen does a wonderful job of shading in the growing fascination each is feeling for the other, and he keeps the surprises coming:
“My husband is impotent. It was a botched operation for a misdiagnosed prostate condition. I still want a sex life, so I only screw people I’m about to kill.”
A highly intimate secret, the sort that would only be whispered to the dead or dying, so probably true.
“You started with the prostate specialist.”
Her mouth dropped open and her eyes bulged.
Spontaneous reaction. So it was a real secret.
“How – I mean … Who told you that?” she demanded.
“You spoke the words botched and misdiagnosed with particular venom. I am good at picking up nuances.”
She stared at me intently. It was not a glare of hate, but the stare of a master chess player who realizes her opponent is more than a talented amateur.
Surprise, mixed with intense concentration. Splendid.
“Your turn,” she said.
The two stories happily indicate the breadth of an average issue of Asimov’s – the range from intricate and sumptuously-detailed serious concept-driven science fiction to pure pulp adrenaline. My February issue is in smudgy tatters. Time for the March issue!
The latest issue of National Geographic is as packed with glorious goodies as all other issues of the magazine tend to be, and one of them brought back a lot of great memories: an article about the sprawling natural park region all around “the Tall One,” the moody and incredible mountain I knew as Mount McKinley. The article is written by Tom Clynes and features gorgeous photography by Aaron Huey, and as with most National Geographic feature articles, the message isn’t merely one of celebration. Out of some sense of providing a balanced picture, Clynes not only talks to tour guides and wilderness officials but also talks about the bitter scum-creatures who insist on viewing the Denali wilderness – and all the animals within it – as their personal property. There are pictures of these ranchers and trappers, along with their gruesome handiwork: dead wolves and decapitated moose.
But at least the bulk of the piece is celebration. Denali hosts hundreds and hundreds of awestruck tourists every season, but Clynes also visits its back country in the off-season, in the middle of winter, and he gets to those regions in pretty much the only way possible:
“Dogs connect people to history and to an experience most people will never have,” says kennel manager Jennifer Raffaeli. “In the winter they’re the most reliable and reasonably safe way to move around parts of the park. Unlike a snowmobile, they’re always ready to start up. They also have a survival instinct, which is something no machine can ever have.”
That afternoon the cold snap breaks, and we mush in a caravan of three dog teams to the ranger station at Wonder Lake. At 2 a.m we step outside our cabins to catch a dazzling show of the aurora borealis as the dogs sleep nearby.
“A lot of Denali is untouchable to most people, but with the dogs, traveling like this, you can touch it,” Raffaeli tells me as we stare in awe at the curtains of multicolored light flowing across the sky. “The sense of peace you get here in the winter is so intense it’s almost beyond belief.”
This brought back a flood of memories of the times I’ve visited Denali myself, and those memories, encountered again while sitting in a cozy book-lined parlor listening to the contented snoring of two old dogs who couldn’t climb a flight of stairs, let alone mush over broken terrain, were of course both sweet and bittersweet. Long, long gone are the wonderful dogs I knew back then, from under whose warm weight I looked up at those “curtains of multicolored light flowing across the sky.” Long, long gone are the adventures big and small we encountered far from the haunts of humans. It was wonderful to recall those experiences, and it was almost equally wonderful to see, from Clynes’ story and especially from Huey’s stunning photographs, that Denali is still entrancing people – and luring some of them deeper into its back country, to experience its humbling wonders.
And as an added bonus, the issue’s photos also included one that made me hoot with unexpected laughter – surely the most “what the hell?” shot of a grizzly bear anyone has ever managed to get. It shows an enormous bear breaking the herbivore diet and eating a hapless ground squirrel:
I love a 16,000-word TLS rumination on the lesser novels of George Eliot as much as the next bookworm (the keening sound you just heard coming from Up North was a certain Open Letters Monthly colleague saying “WHAT lesser novels?”), but sometimes, when rummaging through the week’s Penny Press, I get my biggest smiles from reading deadline writers in tetchy moods. I know full well how it feels when outrage comes bubbling up between the floorboards of a piece of prose, and I know how enjoyable it can feel to stop fighting and let it happen. I’ve done it myself from time to time, and there’s an unapologetic part of me that loves seeing other writers do it.
I got that treat twice this week, for instance. In The Weekly Standard, John Podhoretz reviews The Revenant, the new and egregiously overpraised movie adaptation of the Michael Punke novel. The movie is directed by Alejandro Inarritu and stars a hilariously bad Leonardo DiCaprio spitting up phlegm onto his beard, and just from the title of Podhoretz’s review, “Ah, Wilderness!”, I knew I was in for some fun. And I wasn’t disappointed:
The Oscar-winning director, Alejandro G. Inarritu, and the star, Leonardo DiCaprio, have done nothing for months but talk about how difficult it was to film The Revenant. It was so difficult, you wouldn’t believe. They were out. In the cold. They had to haul equipment up mountains. DiCaprio had to pull a live fish out of a river and eat it – and it wasn’t even cut up by a sushi chef! Oy, the difficulty! It nearly broke them! Imagine the bravery these two men showed, getting paid only $20-30 million (DiCaprio) and probably something like $5 million (Inarritu) to put up with such suffering, such pain, such indignity! But they didn’t mind the sacrifice, because they were sacrificing for us, you see. To bring us art.
Even better was a resplendent takedown in the February/March issue of Bookforum. In a piece cleverly titled “The Flowers of Romance” (too cleverly? Will non-Francophile readers get the reference?), Heather Havrilesky very patiently and mercilessly tears apart the literary output of Nicholas Sparks, concentrating on his new book, lavishing plenty of scorn on his older books, and along the way pithily reminding her readers why the potting of such an easy target matters:
But let’s not kid ourselves about the literary value of 482 pages of small talk interspersed with well-worn folksy truisms about how everything is exactly as it should be. At a time when popularity is taken not just as a signifier of value but as the exact same thing as value, it is necessary and worthwhile to absorb just how bad the really bad books manage to get away with being while still selling millions of copies internationally.
And elsewhere in the Penny Press, in an issue of Outside whose cover would be sheer genius if it weren’t absolutely plastered in text, there’s a picture of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady modeling for the Under Armour clothing line. The picture shows Brady in full sprint-workout, covered in sweat – but both the sprint and the sweat are fake. Somehow, in 2016, neither of these details surprise.
It was a bit of a thready swallow, working my way past the smug cover photo of Fox News shill Megyn Kelly in the latest issue of Vanity Fair, but I was certainly glad I did, since the issue itself was chock-full of murder, celebrities, and murdered celebrities, plus great photos, grotesque real estate ads, and, in this issue, two short opening pieces of interest.
The first was James Wolcott’s smart, amusing “Podcast Nation,” in which he writes about a phenomenon I myself haven’t fully figured out yet: podcasts and what they’re all about – who they appeal to. I’ve listened to a smattering of podcasts in the last few years and completely failing to see the appeal, so I read Wolcott’s random musings here with extra interest, including the sweeping characterizations that are the sure-fire sign of a hack padding out a word-count:
Podcasts are essentially radio on the installment plan, a return to the intimacy, wombed shadows, and pregnant implications of words, sounds, and silences in the theater of the mind. As commercial radio trashed itself with so many commercials, demographic narrowing (in many markets, pitching to Aging Angry White Male), and the incessant pandering of the religious/right-win tom-tom drums, podcasts redeemed the medium by restoring its lost creative promise.
More interesting and far more alarming was Michael Kinsley’s short piece “The Unbearable Silence of P. C.,” about the rampant censorship of the so-called “progressive Left” in the US and UK. Kinsley is specifically worked up about British biochemist Sir Tim Hunt, who was driven out of his job and publicly ruined for jokes he made about women in the science lab, but to put it mildly, the problem exists in America too, where college undergraduate babies can scream in the face of their deans and professors (and where one of those instructors can in turn call for a mob to attack a reporter and not be arrested for it). I thought one bit of Kinsley’s piece was especially on-point, about how the greater danger isn’t the infringement of a legal protection of free speech but rather the more nebulous (but not less intentional) dampening of the whole societal expectation of free speech:
The First Amendment is nice to have if you find yourself arguing for free expression in a case before the Supreme Court. And that’s no small thing. But the Constitution isn’t the most important guarantee of free speech for the average citizen in ordinary circumstances. More important is a culture of free expression, where people are encouraged to say what they think, where eccentricity of all kinds is tolerated or even appreciated, and where Voltaire’s aphorism is baked into everyday life.
It’s not often that I agree with Michael Kinsley about anything (in fact, his 2015 “plagiarism – meh, no big deal” piece was one of the most corrupt and idiotic pieces Vanity Fair has ever run), but in this I think he’s exactly right: First Amendment or no First Amendment, if people start to think that they can’t speak freely, their right to do so won’t mean much. Kinsley’s piece prompted me yet again to thank whatever gods may be that I spend no time in academia.
It’s hard to miss the cover of the latest Esquire on the newsstands. It’s a stark, ugly black-and-white close up of Donald Trump’s face, under the banner “Hater in Chief.” And the issue’s contents are politically weighted, in ways virtually guaranteed to irk me – especially the magazine’s specious, irritating accompanying “news survey” about rage in America, the forms it takes, the numbers that allegedly reflect it, etc. This junk gambit – trying to somehow legitimize talking about Donald Trump by characterizing him as some kind of bellweather of forces that are important to talk about – started in earnest in late summer and has now become a cliché on its own, inviting the lazy alignment of cover articles about him and articles about rage or disillusionment or the ills of the political system.
The issue’s “Cold Open” partially calmed me down. It’s a short one-page piece by a decent, articulate Iowan, about how revolting Donald Trump is, and how revolting it is that he’s nonetheless polling so well in Iowa:
If you regard honesty and humility as virtues, which I think most Iowans do, his ridiculous boasts demand derision. He’s the business genius who brags about screwing his investors and who has declared bankruptcy as often as some people overdraw their checking account. He sports the world’s silliest comb-over and makes fun of other people’s looks. He’s the tough guy who never served in the military, never risked his life or his interests for anyone other than himself, and disparaged the service of a decorated veteran.
The tone of outrage there, added to the deliberate face-slap of the issue’s cover, made me wonder if maybe this would be one of the first mainstream magazine treatments of Donald Trump that wasn’t fawning for table-scraps of attention. I flipped to an excellent Tom Junod piece on Hillary Clinton, “The Last Optimist at the Apocalypse,” in which his wonderful flow of prose was pitted only once in a while by wince-inducing lapses. See, for instance, if you can spot the one in this otherwise-fine paragraph:
She likes to laugh. She’s famous for it – the forced bark of her parodists. But in fact her laugh is the most spontaneous thing about her. It’s the most appealing thing about her, because it shows her willingness to be entertained. She’s not particularly funny, but she likes funny people. You can hear her laughing when she disappears into crowds; you can see her laughing when she’s being introduced before her speeches. Her laugh overtakes her. It startles her, and sometimes she bends slightly at the waist to accommodate its force. It’s restorative; it brings light into her eyes and her high, round cheekbones into sharp relief. She has a radiance sometimes, almost gravid, and it’s usually when she’s been laughing.
Hillary Clinton has spent over three decades at the heart of American politics; she’s been the country’s face to the world for over a decade; she’s certainly going to be the Democratic nominee to be the next US president. It would be great – it would be just super-dooper – if we could read even one single article written about her by a man who didn’t mention or even allude to her goddam womb. Tom Junod would never – and I mean not even with a gun to his head – refer to any male presidential candidate as “tumescent.” But referring to Hillary Clinton as “gravid” not only struck him as OK but struck his Esquire editors as OK.
But the piece itself was in general very good, and I perked myself up a bit more by reading Scott Raab’s interview-piece with actor Bob Odenkirk. I didn’t recognize the actor’s name, but the piece was pure Scott Raab: beautifully written, full of great dialogue, atmospheric … dramatic, in a way no other interviewer even thinks to do, let alone could ever manage to pull off.
But sooner or later, I had to steel myself and read the Esquire Q&A, which was the cover story. I hate the fact that Esquire put this evil buffoon on its cover. I hate the fact that they either don’t know that you don’t extinguish a fire by constantly supplying it with oxygen or they actually want to keep it burning. But I saw that Scott Raab was the interviewer, and not only am I a big fan of his Esquire interviews (usually, that is – when he sits at a restaurant across the table from somebody he considers a guy’s guy, somebody maybe even, God help us all, from Chicago, the sheep-dip surges to waist-height in no time at all) but because I’m familiar with his writing from of old. I know perfectly well the whetted glory of his controlled contempt-in-prose, and I thought: good. That cover, plus a Scott Raab skewering, will be much to Esquire‘s credit.
And the Q&A opened encouragingly. When Raab meets Donald Trump for the interview, we get a promising set-up:
But he’s gone down the hall. Me, I’m thinking about Larry David’s old stand-up bit:
“You know, if he’d given me a compliment, Josef Mengele and I could have been friends – ‘Larry, your hair looks very good today.’ Really? Thank you, Dr. Mengele!”
In their first few minutes together, Trump assesses his interviewer while also – it’s become almost boring by now – grossly insulting the physical infirmity of an earlier interviewer:
“I like this guy,” Trump says to his press secretary, who’s seated off to the side, behind me. “It usually takes me, what, about three seconds to know? I had a guy come in from – what was it, GQ? He was the worst guy. He walked with a cane. He wasn’t an old guy, but he had a bad leg. You know that guy?”
“He was the worst human – terrible guy. I actually said, ‘Why are we wasting time with this guy?’”
I’m thinking that it was was to wear a quality suit with a nice pair of shoes and the Rolex. I’m thinking Dr. Mengele did not smile upon the infirm either.
It was at that point that I started to get irritated, and not just because any Chicago guy’s guy worth his balls would have spoken up and told another adult – especially another guy – not to take cheap shots at somebody’s lame leg. No, it was because the Mengele conceit is good, but only if you use it. Instead, I started to realize this was only partly irony. Raab wasn’t dressing up nice and smart and wearing his Rolex so he could score a borderline-civil interview with Donald Trump and then use that fact to serve up Trump’s guts in Esquire‘s pages for his readers. No, the more I read, the more I realized he was dressing up to pay court. He drops the Mengele conceit very quickly, and then he drops the whole pretense of an interview at all and just lets Trump talk until his word-count is up.
I’ve read the piece three times, and I admit: I don’t understand what happened here. But I know one thing: we are way, way past the point – in the nation and in the Republic of Letters – where anybody should be even trying high-minded clever po-faced conceits about Donald Trump. We’re way, way past the point where we should be talking about Donald Trump, the vicious, bigoted, misogynistic, anti-Semitic bullying fascist moron, as a bellwether or a revelation or an indicator of anything. We’re way, way past the point where we can afford to be clever about this porridge-faced monster, even for boffo newsstand sales. If Scott Raab wrote a classic Raab slam-piece and his editors muzzled it, shame on them. And if he got to Trump Tower in his suit and Rolex and decided on his own to futz around and make classroom faces on the asinine assumption that this idiot is too transparent to mock, well, then shame on him.
The New Year in the Penny Press started out for me with a nasty little shock. Despite bungling my subscription paperwork to such an extent that I get two copies of every issue of the New Yorker in the mail ever week, I had occasion shortly after the year began to buy a copy of the magazine at a newsstand – at which point I noticed for the first time that the New Yorker is now $10 an issue (if the actual cover-price of a thing leaves you with insufficient change out of a $10 bill to buy anything else, that thing costs $10).
Circumstances were such that I would have felt awkward not going through with the purchase, but the issue curled like a rattlesnake in my leather shoulder-bag, and when I finally got around to reading the issue, I read it with a wounded squint of eye. It’s true that there was a first-rate profile by Laura Secor of Asieh Amini, an Iranian activist who’s dedicated her life to attacking some of the barbarities of the Iranian penal system. And there was a very good short by Ottessa Moshfegh called “The Beach Boy.” And there was some typically smart TV criticism by Emily Nussbaum of a show called “Transparent.” And there was a long review of a recent volume of the poetry of Yehuda Amichai by James Wood, and an opera piece by Alex Ross, and a typically witty movie review by Anthony Lane, including some sharp observations on the filmmaking of the loathsome Quentin Tarantino in context of talking about “The Hateful Eight.” “Above all,” Lane writes, “we get confirmation of the director’s preeminent perversity: patient and elaborate in his racking up of tension, he knows only one way to resolve it, and that is through carnage, displayed in unmerciful detail.”
Admittedly, it’s a profusion of first-rate material, a lineup of some of the best writers appearing in periodicals today. But not every issue boasts such a lineup, and every issue on the newsstand now costs $10 apiece, which is highway robbery, a price that would be excessive even for the big square-bound glossy magazines. It makes buying the latest issue while out-and-about in Boston or New York unthinkable; buying an annual subscription is now the only non-insulting way to get the magazine, and it’s easy to imagine the subscription price skyrocketing in similar measure sometime soon.
Maybe I allowed too much of the irritation of that New Yorker issue to slop over into my reading of the new issue of Smithsonian, a magazine I’ve come to like very much. This latest issue has a fascinating story on WWII bombs and another first-rate story on the white storks of Europe, but the cover story is “Unearthing the World of Jesus” by Ariel Sabar, with its arresting “artist’s interpretation” of a sixth-century painting that’s possibly of Jesus as some kind of unshaven epicene Apollo figure.
The article is classic Smithsonian in its beautiful layout and careful writing, but it irritated me because both the article and all the experts quoted in it seem to be angling toward a pre-set conclusion, which isn’t how history or archeological interpretation are supposed to work. The reader-friendly assumption throughout the article is that Jesus – the more-or-less recognizable figure from the Gospels – actually existed at one point as a real person, and it’s the job of relic-hunters and site-diggers only to find more and more evidence of that. Some of the experts Sabar quotes sound downright impatient not to have turned up a driver’s license or a verified Twitter account:
“The sorts of evidence other historical figures leave behind are not the sort we’d expect with Jesus,” says Mark Chancey, a religious studies professor at Southern Methodist University and a leading authority on Galilean history. “He wasn’t a political leader, so we don’t have coins, for example, that have his bust or name. He wasn’t a sufficiently high-profile social leader to leave behind inscriptions. In his own lifetime, he was a marginal figure, and he was active in marginalized circles.”
Not a sufficiently high-profile social leader? A guy who, according to his own mythology, was followed everywhere by crowds numbering in the thousands, all of whom hailed him as a great miracle-worker capable of raising the dead? Seems to me if there had been such a figure in first-century Judea, somebody would have mentioned it at the time, even as a passing anecdote. The fact that in two thousand years not one single such mention has ever been found would, I’d think, be grounds for a bit more critical distance even in a piece called “Unearthing the World of Jesus.” After all, the title of equivalent pieces is never “Unearthing the World of Hercules,” right?
But as I mentioned, probably I was taking out some unfair frustrations on the innocent Smithsonian. Either way, one thing’s for damn certain: if he really did exist, Jesus would never have charged $10 for a single issue of the New Yorker, for God’s sake.